the Voice of African Music, April 1999. All rights reserved.

Conversations with Mor Thiam
(Feature Article 1)

Editor’s Note:
Anicet Mundundu, one of several speakers and artists at the October African Music Conference, initiated the following conversations. Leading the questions with support from Prof. Kwabena Nketia and Fred Onovwerosuoke, the session became historic in a way, because for the first time, drum legend Mor Thiam, shared some insights on the growing popularity of African music in the United States.


Nketia: The fact that they [Blacks] stayed with their political leaders at that time played an important part in the popularity of the djembe, because they saw or heard the instrument often and could connect with it. Also the fact that the thing [djembe playing] was into the community made it possible for people to see… It established that culture and its importance in terms of identity.

Thiam: You’re right Prof… It must be electric when I play. Because, often, you cannot move. Sometimes, especially when I am in front of an audience, I do whatever I wish. I have them in my hand because the power of Africa flows through me to the drum. Africa is speaking to them. A few months ago there was a big article in the New York Times about this.

When I came here djembe was not really respected, but right now, if you’re not a player, you have djembe on your neck. More people wear djembe on their necks than the ones who play it! [Laughter]

Mundundu: I think it’s even more than that, because now that djembe has attained such a high level of popularity, people now make it here. It’s being produced and manufactured in industry. More and more companies are getting involved in this. It’s commercialized now,... Can you tell us how you feel about it, or were you somehow involved in helping them with initial design of the instrument here.

Thiam: Well, before I talk about the design here, let me talk about the original design. I think, if you look at the djembe you see ancient Egyptian civilization, the pyramids. That’s the power the people have known about. That’s the symbol of Africa…the pyramids of Egypt. Look at a pyramid, and place your djembe down on its membrane, both have similar contours. The shape of the djembe is influenced by that of the pyramids...

One day I was invited by Bell Telephone. They said, "Tell us about the difference between drum communication and the telephone.’ I said, number one, you’ve got to take the bell out because the bell does not mean anything. You should say ‘drum-phone’ instead of ‘bell-phone.’ You see this [drum] was the first commu-nication ever before the bell. You must take the bell out because I think it’s fake, it’s not real. Drum-phone: that would be something. You see the djembe is very powerful. It is so powerful because it is a take-off on the pyramid.

Nketia: It is also because it’s an instrument that has so much sound that it attracts attention. You can never compare it to any other drum. It’s really hard and resonant - that’s something really attractive about the instrument. But I think we should give credit to the enterprising nature of those who helped create awareness in it here. Because if Katherine asked you to come and you did not come here at all, then there would be nothing, really…

Fred O: So, you have no direct connection with the manufacturers, who have commercialized this instrument…

Thiam: Well, in ’96 a company called me to endorse the djembe they make. You see, they make djembe but they add some metal objects…

Mundundu: You ever seen that? Some of them are really big!

Thiam: …and sometimes they also add plastic fibers. Anyway, they contacted me, and also Mike [Mike Hastings?]…you know, of Drums of Planet, who wanted me to work with him. We met in Connecticut - Hartford, Connecticut. Unfortunately, for whatever the reason, he ended up working with Olatunji. That’s how they came up with all the drums of life stuff. Then he started working with different people, from Brazil and other places. Anyway, they did contact me before to do that but… you know, I love this [African] culture. I respect it so much I want to make sure that whatever I do is respected the way it should be respected. Not making it so is unforgivable… But it’s fine that people now make it… Besides, I think our fellow African musicians, as Professor was saying, deserve great credit because they have made excellent contribution

Mundundu: Dr. Michol?

Thiam: Dr. Michol and Franceo, etc. These people linked African music.

[Digresses] Africa is a continent with different countries, each with its different kind of music… I was carried away by the high-life [beats rhythm with both feet] when I was a kid. The high-life set the rhythm of universal happenings. When I went to work with Mya Sparrow, [Mighty Sparrow of Trinidad] he wanted me to move in and work with him in Trinidad. Then the oil company Texaco paid for me to come for 6 months. To Trinidad & Tobago, San Fernando, to train drummers. So when I worked with M.S. I saw calypso straight from Accra to them [traits of Accra highlife music]. Like now, Westerners are asking what music can tame a guitar like a Congolese. None. No one.

Fred O: (Echos) No one.

Thiam: They are doing research to find out how they can play a western-made guitar. Where are you going to find this level of quality? There’s no way.

Nketia: I suppose you play around the United States in many places.

Thiam: Prof., I do not believe there is a city in the United States where I have not played. None.

Nketia: What about outside?

Thiam: Outside the United States, I’ve played in Canada. I’ve played in Mexico. I’ve played in all of Europe: England, France, Singapore, Belguim, Australia, Indonesia, Japan. I do Mount Fiji Festival almost every two years. If I don’t go there they’re not happy.

Fred O: You came to this festival [African Music Conference & Festival] from Indonesia, right?…

Thiam: Yeah, before that Jamaica, Portugal… I’m always on the road!

Fred O: You had a project with Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife?

Thiam: Yes, that’s right, in Jamaica, that’s every year, to the Jazz & Blues Festival. Eventually, other people joined in. (When I saw that everyone was coming to get what I had, I also worked to grab what they had to add to what I had to make it better; to make them feel we can work together.)

I also did a 6-month study working with native American Indians. I went to Montana, in the mountains. The day they invited me, there was a group of Indians who played. I got my drum. The Indians have the same kind of style…formality. They are very conservative, and very respectable. They go by whatever the elders say, they don’t go by rules.

Mundundu: They played the tabla?

Thiam: No, native American Indians!... The first day they never heard me, I heard them, and when I listened I saw the link of what they were doing to what we do back in Africa. Then they played two times and they said "We were playing this just to greet you," because our leader told us we have to create this song for you. Now you play for us. So we merged! They wanted to make sure where I’m going is linked with what they were doing. So I started playing. When I started making all these things they heard. I started out by playing something they were familiar with, with their own drums. Then the leader started smiling. That’s how I worked with them. Later, other people (Runog Racket, etc.) began to do this as well - working with the Indians. But then that was not enough for me. I went to Jamaica where Reggae beat was evolving with Bob Marley and others. They actually got the reggae beat from local people who played on inprovised African drums. The on-uh, oom-uh [does beats with bot]. It is the rhythm of the heart beat. Now all you have to add is the beat ka-tcha, ka-tcha {says it while beating the boot rhythm] - that’s the reggae beat. And I spent months with them in Maroor, in the mountains, to learn how they mixed these with the chants and the songs. And of course, I traveled to Trinidad, Santo Domingo, Guatamala to find out different things. One fact from my travels is that, on close study, there is really nothing different in these places. Everything [they did, and do] you can trace back to home—Africa.

Nketia: I think the other interesting phenomenon is the popularity of Senegalese dance which is fast becoming the national dance of (laughter) Africa. The energy of the dance and the energy of the drums, both energies appeal so much to people here...

Thiam: Well Prof., as you know, Senegal is not of one ethnic group. We’re more like Americans. We are mixed. If you trace a Senegalese, you will find that he’s Ghanaian, he’s Nigerian, he’s from Egypt - we’re mixed. Wollof is the language.

You know, someone used to tease me and say, "You Senegalese, when God was dividing the dance you were sleeping too much. You just woke up overnight and jumped and, [stomps with both feet, throwing hand high over head... laughter] and jumped and did your hands like that… You don’t have any structure for dancing." He said, "God gave Ghanaians their movement, the Nigerians their movement, and the Togolese their movement. You Senegalese were sleeping and then the rhythm was playing and you just got up and [stomps, throws body back, hand in air]." When you think about it, it’s almost true. It looks like we don’t construct. When we dance, we just…Sabar.

Mundundu: Give up!

Thiam: You see, every movement has construction. Respectable quality movement except Sabar. Sabar is very free, you just… [lets loose as before]. Sabar does not belong to Senegal, it belongs to all the continent that’s why it is like that. If you see the structure of Sabar, it is the same in Ghana and Nigeria…same thing. Just named differently.

Mundundu: We’ve heard a lot about your success and everything. Can you tell us about your struggles in this country as an African artist, vis-a-vie fellow musicians or performance or …

Nketia: Assuming he has struggled, we must know how; and whether, in fact, it has been plain-sailing or not.

Thiam: Please repeat what you said.

Nketia: We wanted to know whether (smiles) since when you came everything has been smooth for you because Katherine brought you, the political groups saw you, etc… Has everything been going smooth for you? If not, what kind of difficulties have come your way?

Thiam: That’s a good question, very good. My father used to say, in every shade there was the sun before. You have to be in tune with the sun to be in the shade. My biggest struggle was identifying with who I am. Being an African percussionist and player and singer, I can see a lot of jealousy - big jealousy - and I’m sure that you know that, [points to Nketia] and you know that, [points to Mundundu] and you know that, [points to Fred]. [All agree and laugh]. That’s something you have to be strong to cut the red tape; if not, you’ll be lying down. But my experience in the United States beside my success, let me see,… the biggest struggle which I will never let drain me down (really) is the jealousy. It’s the most destructive disease people can have. You know, America accepts everything, but also rejects almost everything. Unless they put a stamp on it, to them you do not exist, or they destroy you. Surviving - that’s my biggest struggle. Many of the students I have taught turn around and make me their enemy. One has to be strong enough not to look down, but [points up].

Mundundu: Above…

Thiam: Above that, I’m sure Fred knows…

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